Review: The Poetics of Aristotle

Aristotle, Poetics (trans. Preston H. Epps)

In this slim treatise, Aristotle shares his philosophy of literature, including both tragedy and epic poetry. (There may at one point have been a section on comedy also, but if so, it has been lost.) He sets forth the various rules governing tragedy in some detail, including what subjects are appropriate for a tragedy, the best plot devices to use, the proper length, the best types of characters, and the primary goal of tragedy. He backs up his assertions with examples from the various poets and playwrights of his day, none of whom measure up to “the divine Homer.” With systematic deliberation (and occasional humor), Aristotle lays out his formula for creating great literature.

The thing about Aristotle is that he is hard — and the Poetics is harder than many of his other works, for several reasons. First of all, there’s no single definitive text, so translations can vary widely. (I read a cheap edition published by UNC Press in the 1940s. It seemed serviceable enough, and there were many footnotes explaining why the translator had chosen one word over another.) Also, many of Aristotle’s literary examples made no sense to me, since I’m not terribly familiar with ancient Greek drama. In fact, I think many of the plays he cites have been lost to the modern world! That said, I did find his general rules about literature to be interesting, and I’m glad I finally read this classic work.

N.B. — The version depicted in the picture is not the same as the version I read. I have no knowledge about the quality of the respective translations.

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